Editorial: A Dangerous Medium

Just a reminder: A weekly edition of Slate is now available on paper, delivered through the U.S. mail, by subscription only, for $70 a year. Call 800-555-4995 to subscribe.

We hesitate, frankly, to offer a paper edition of Slate. Why? Because paper is a dangerous medium, all too prone to misuse by pedophiles, political extremists, paranoid conspiracy mongers, and purveyors of bad casserole recipes. Hitler’s Mein Kampf was written on paper. So were many of Stalin’s most bestial orders for mass executions. Those of us at Slate who are parents must naturally wonder whether paper should be allowed into a house where young children can read or–worse–write on it.

As many newspapers, magazines, and other timber-industry byproducts have pointed out in the wake of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, Slate’s preferred medium of the Internet has some darker byways of its own. That’s true. But this anti-Internet alarmism is a heavy-handed attempt to distract attention from the really dangerous medium: paper. J’accuse. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Et cetera.

The earliest users of paper were ancient Egyptians, with their bizarre worship of the Sun God, Ra. (A distant relation, perhaps, of the Heaven’s Gate cult leaders, Do and Ti?) In the modern era, the practice of writing on paper was first taken up, and monopolized for centuries, by Christian monks, all of whom had taken vows of celibacy. Even today, reading paper products is a lonely habit whose practitioners often spend hours or even days at a time silently and obsessively turning pages, immersed in a world of fantasy, isolated from normal society. No wonder some of them lose all grip on reality. Charles Manson was a known book reader. So was Attila the Hun (according to his former political consultant, Dick Morris). Yet society ignored the clues until it was too late.

Mere words cannot describe the vast range of content now available on paper. Much of this, to be sure, is harmless nonsense, such as the installation instructions that come with popular software products. But paper is by far the favorite medium of pornographers. Ransom notes use paper as well. Several years ago a scientific journal published instructions for building a nuclear bomb. Where? On paper!

In a culture where Internet reality is dismissed as “virtual,” the appearance of words on paper lends them instant credibility–credibility that may not be deserved. An irresponsible rumor can be set in type, and then printed and distributed by the millions, with no guarantee whatsoever of its accuracy. And yet people say, “I only know what I read in the papers.” At best, paper’s materiality creates an unjustified impression of trustworthiness; at worst, paper can be folded into an airplane that can poke someone’s eye out.

Paper poses a special peril to children. Unlike a computer, a filthy magazine can easily be snuck into the house in an innocent-looking lunchbox. It can be hidden under a pile of sweat clothes in the bottom dresser drawer. Any page can be folded, placed in a pocket, and secretly transported or shared with other children. Books can even be read by flashlight in bed, long after Dad has requisitioned the family computer and is trying to log on to AOL, naively believing that junior is safe from corruption just because he is tucked in and offline.

It is fine to say that parents are responsible for what their children read. But no parent can realistically patrol a child’s access to paper. It’s everywhere–even at the library and other taxpayer-supported institutions. Rating systems do not exist. Filtering software is not available.

What is the moral? The first moral is that children are never safer than when staring at a computer screen. At least you know they’re not reading a book or anything. Second, government regulation of paper is clearly needed. We look to Congress for a Paper Decency Act, to close the giant loophole left open when last year’s Communications Decency Act was limited to electronic media. Third, the recent ruling of the United States Parole Board forbidding paroled federal prisoners to use the Internet must be extended to forbid books, magazines, and newspapers as well. Corrupting influences are everywhere.

Finally, read Slate online. Or subscribe (free) to our e-mail edition. If you must use paper, please do so with extreme caution. Thank you.


“The Gist: Zaire,” posted Saturday, March 22, now in “The Compost,” inaccurately identified Paul Kagamé as president of Rwanda. He is vice president and defense minister. The mistake has been corrected in the archived article but, as is our policy, we note the error here for purposes of self-flagellation.

–Michael Kinsley